Following Draymond Green’s ejection early in Thursday’s loss to the New York Knicks, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr looked down his bench as his team was reeling, disorganized and in need of a boost.
Kerr called on Nico Mannion, the 19-year-old rookie who had yet to play a meaningful regular-season minute, to help replace the ball-handling and passing lost when Green picked up a second technical foul in the second quarter and was sent to the locker room.
This could have come as a surprise, but Warriors coaches in private have been raving about Mannion, praising the young point guard’s basketball IQ, humble approach and natural passing ability.
“The ball just moves when he’s on the floor,” Kerr said of Mannion. “I went with him after we lost Draymond because I just felt like I should throw our next best passer out there, and that’s him.”
That’s because Mannion has used every moment afforded to him to endear himself to coaches and teammates. During practices, shoot arounds and scrimmages, he relishes the short bursts when he can direct the offense and execute the playbook.
On the bench, Mannion stays engaged by asking questions of his more experienced teammates. Sometimes guard Damion Lee, who was promoted from a two-way contract to the 15-man roster last season, will pepper Mannion with trivia about the opponent, game plan or what’s happening on the court.
“He’s on a two-way now,” Lee said, “but he’ll be in the league as long as he keeps on working, keeps on staying diligent.”
Still, it has been more than 10 months since Mannion has played rotation-level minutes. The last time was March 11, 2020, when he played 37 minutes and helped lead Arizona to a win over Washington. A top highschool recruit, Mannion tumbled down draft boards during his lone season at Arizona because of inefficient shooting numbers.
But that did not deter Golden State from selecting Mannion when they were on the clock with the No. 48 pick in November’s draft. Impressed with his pure point guard skills, the Warriors had been following Mannion since he was a five-star recruit at Pinnacle high school in Phoenix, Arizona. “We had him much higher than 48 on our board,” a team source said.
However, because players on two-way contracts such as Mannion can only be active for up to 50 games with their NBA club, the Warriors have not been able to use him much outside of dire circumstances.
So far in his rookie season, Mannion has seen the court for Golden State three times, never playing more than 10 minutes in each appearance. With the G League season so far on hold, Mannion has not been able to develop with the Warriors’ affiliate in Santa Cruz.
That will change soon, when the Warriors send Mannion to the upcoming G League bubble near Orlando. The Santa Cruz Warriors will play a 15-game season, starting Feb. 8, and Mannion will have an opportunity to play extended minutes and run a professional offense.
The Warriors are confident that, by the time Mannion returns, he will be unencumbered by the two-way contract limits and could join the normal rotation.
“I think going down there, just playing, getting back in my flow, getting in really good game shape, that would be good for me,” said Mannion, who needs to be inactive for at least 11 more NBA games under his two-way contract. “By the time I get back, I’d be able to suit up the rest of the year and not have to sit out any more games.”
Contributed by local news sources